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Thomas Sankara: pan-africanist revolutionary and immortal hero



From Lêgerîn #12


Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara was a Burkinabè military officer, Marxist revolutionary and Pan-Africanist who served as President of Burkina Faso after coming to power in a coup in 1983 until his assassination in 1987. He was a very charismatic and iconic figure of the Revolution. When he took power, the Republic of Upper Volta was one of Africa’s poorest countries. While it had officially attained independence in 1958, it remained afflicted by the dark legacy of French colonialism and heavily dependent on western aid and corporate interests. Sankara understood that true independence was more than a new flag and currency — it meant political and economic independence, too. In so many ways, Sankara went against the main political currents of the 1980s. As a revolutionary hero and political icon, he is often viewed as a virtuous political leader who, despite his errors, had the genuine interests of the people at heart.


Under his presidency, a revolutionary project was launched aiming to transform everything. Beginning with the name of the country, Sankara abandoned the colonial name of Upper Volta and declared the new country as Burkina Faso. This name is a combination of two words in the Yulá and Mossi languages, spoken there, which together mean «homeland of upright men», thus indicating a radical new vision of self-reliance for the country. And it was Sankara himself who was in charge of writing the lyrics and composing the music for the new country’s anthem. In his words, his revolution was nourished by all the previous ones, from the French to the Russian, in addition to the struggles for liberation on the African continent.


Sankara proposed the elimination of the traditional powers of the tribal chiefs that still existed in the country and that oppressed the peasants. In addition, he formed Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, with a structure similar to that existing in Cuba. He also imposed austerity among members of the government, reducing the salaries of officials (his own included), changing the fleet of state vehicles by replacing Mercedes-Benz branded ones with lower-cost ones, and prohibiting his ministers from traveling first class. In economic and productive matters, his government carried out agrarian reform and the nationalized its mineral sector. The primary aim of his government was food sovereignty since, according to Sankara, imperialism could be clearly seen in the origin of the food that the population had on their plates: «imported corn, rice or millet: that is imperialism, there is no «We have to look further.» He maintained that his country had the capacity to produce enough food for everyone and promoted a fertilization and irrigation program. By 1986, Burkina Faso had already doubled the average wheat production per hectare of its region of the continent.


Sankara also had important proposals and measures in relation to women’s rights, such as the prohibition of female genital mutilation and forced marriages. In addition, he encouraged women to work outside their homes, hiring them in large numbers in the army and appointing many of them to important positions in his cabinet.


For Sankara, the emancipation of women was not «a wave of human compassion» but «a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution.»


He wrote on his book Womens Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle:

 “Starting now, the men and women of Burkina Faso should profoundly change their image of themselves. For they are part of a society that is not only establishing new social relations but is also provoking a cultural transformation, upsetting the relations of authority between men and women and forcing each to rethink the nature of both. This task is formidable but necessary. For it will determine our ability to bring our revolution to its full stature, unleash its full potential, and show its true meaning for the direct, natural, and necessary relations between men and women, the most natural of all relations between people. Posing the question of women in Burkinabe society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system works, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation. In other words, in order to win this battle that men and women have in common, we must be familiar with all aspects of the woman question on a world scale and here in Burkina. We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabe woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.”


In October 1987, Thomas Sankara was assassinated in a coup d’état carried out by Blaise Compaoré, who had held an intimate friendship with the revolutionary leader since his youth. According to Boukary Kaboré, a close collaborator of Sankara until his last days, he warned the leader about Compaoré’s plot against him and proposed to arrest him, but received a negative response from the president, who considered that this would be a betrayal.


Even with his mistakes, Thomas Sankara’s brief but intense experience at the head of Burkina Faso represents an invaluable contribution to the popular projects of the so-called Third World. It took four years for Sankara’s revolution to generate noticeable improvements in the quality of life of the Burkinabe people, from a popular, Marxist, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist perspective. Although there is not much literature on his revolution and his struggle is not remembered in the West, let us not forget him. Sankara died for his people and his country and he is much loved by the people of Burkina Faso to this day, his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of the people as a true revolutionary.


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